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Headquarters Symbolic of Old GM

June 1, 2009 Economy, Urban Renewal 5 Comments

General Motors is expected to file for bankruptcy protection today.

The GM that helped move the world from horses to Chevys and Cadillacs is expected to file for bankruptcy protection Monday. The new GM that emerges sometime in the future will be leaner — unsaddled from much of its debt and labor cost disadvantages that contributed to tens of billions of dollars of losses. It will also be almost three-quarters owned by U.S. taxpayers.  Source: AP/USA Today

But GM’s headquarters can’t be made leaner as easily.

Above: GMs
Above: GM's Headquarters, July 2006

I saw GM’s Renaissance Center, now branded as Ren Cen, in 2006 while returning to the U.S. from a vacation in Canada  The iconic headquarters gleamed in the sunlight but failed  to impress me.  It symbolizes the old GM — bigger than life, too big in fact.  Disconnected.  It is like tail fins on a Cadillac in an era of Honda Accords.

The history is interesting, starting life with Ford, not GM:

On November 24, 1971, Henry Ford II, then chairman of the board of directors of Ford Motor Company, announced the Renaissance Center project to the Detroit Common Council.  One year later, site clearance for the Center began.  On July 1, 1976 the first office tower (Tower 100) was opened.  A formal dedication was held on April 15, 1977 for the four, 39-floor office towers and the 73-story hotel.Renaissance Center Phase II, Towers 500 and 600, was opened in 1981, as a separate venture developed by subsidiaries of Ford Motor Land Development Corporation and Rockefeller Center, Inc. and purchased by ANR Ren-Cen, Inc. in 1984.

On May 16, 1996, General Motors announced the purchase of the Renaissance Center for use as its global headquarters and later announced a $500 million renovation of the Center.  The GM Renaissance Center is now home to more than 6,000 GM workers and 4,000 Center tenant employees.

  • The total square footage of the GM Renaissance Center is 5.5 million.  The office towers include 2.2 million square feet of space; 230,000 square feet is dedicated to retail space. The Marriott Detroit at the Renaissance Center is one of the tallest hotels in the world with 1,298 guest rooms.
  • Construction on the Ren Cen began May 22, 1973 (Phase I).
  • Project architects were by John Portman & Associates.
  • The Ren Cen has its own zip code – 48243.
  • The GM Renaissance Center sits on 14 acres.
  • There are four 39-story towers (508’ high each).
  • The 73 story 1,298 room hotel (Marriott) is 726’ high and 188’ in diameter.
  • There is a 5-story glass enclosed atrium (GM Wintergarden).
  • There is a 12 ft. wide glass circulation walkway with access to all four towers (for exercise purposes, you need to walk around 8 times for one mile).  Source: gmrencen.com

Like so many projects of the era, the large site was cleaned and started over.  Shedding the past, like bankruptcy.  But in the urban renewal version the result is bloated  and detached.

Source: gmrencen.com  (click image to view)
Source: gmrencen.com (click image to view)

The headquarters isn’t fully to blame for the disconnected from Detroit.  I-375, also known as the Chrysler Expressway, does a good job of separating Detroit from it’s waterfront.

The U. S. auto industry is getting a long overdue overhaul.  New emissions standards will alter the automobiles we see in the future.  Cities too are slowly undoing past urban renewal mistakes.  The scale of GM’s Renaissance Center means it will likely be with us long after the new GM emerges from bankruptcy.  How unfortunate.

  • john

    Taking a country that was largely built on irrational business models that emphasized overproduction, over-borrowing, over-building, over-consumption and the over-use of public spaces to favor carheads to more rational, people-friendly designs will be difficult. We have created a large class of citizens who depend on these bad habits to survive.
    – –
    GMAC is the perfect symbol of hubris and was the key in creating these dependencies. Ezra Merkin, former CEO,is now accused of collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in fees over more than a decade while weaving a “panoply of lies” to conceal that he was channeling much of his clients’ funds to Madoff’s hedge funds according to a civil fraud complaint filed by New York state’s attorney general. Madoff confessed to authorities that he had been running a massive Ponzi scheme.
    – –
    The taxpaying public is now stuck with these poor designs, underfunded road infrastructure, underfunded pension/health care plans etc. as GM is now Government Motors. As of Dec. 31, GM estimated its U.S. pension funds covering over 500,000 Americans were underfunded by $12 billion to $13 billion, and would need “significant contributions” as early as 2013.

  • Jimmy Z

    I guess I disagree, a bit – Renaissance Center is a classic example of 1970’s architecture, for better or worse. Remember, everything in design goes out of style and comes back into style. What we despise today and want to tear down in large numbers will more than likely be sorely missed 50 years from now. Victorian architecture wasn’t appreciated in the 1950’s, but is very much back in style now (what’s left). Commercial architecture from the 1920’s and 1930’s (most of St. Louis) is disappearing daily, but what’s left is slowly becoming both appreciated and reused. Mid-century modern architecure (1950’s and 60’s) is very much in style in places like Palm Springs, but is sorely underappreciated around here. Few people appreciate stuff from the 1970’s and 80’s, since it looks dated, is likely in need of maintenance, and it’s been such a large part of our daily lives (it ain’t “special”). If the World Trade Center in New York hadn’t become a symbol because of 9/11, it would probably be lumped in with Ren Center as another symbol of the excesses and “poor” design decisions of the 1970’s. Every generation of design has its good points and bad points, and what we like and dislike evolves from a whole range of influences. So I guess I’m not all taht worried about the future of this complex; I’m much more worried about how quickly our overall economy is going to bounce back . . .

  • Mark

    Having the “privilege” of working in one of these massive skyscrapers (I was employed for a time at One Bell Center downtown) I can say there are few things that will rob oneself of worth faster than having a five minute vertical commute 39 floors in the air, to be confined in a 4’x4′ box for eight hours, with no access to a window. As if the lighting weren’t bad enough –all florescent bulbs– the company took it upon itself to decommission every other fixture in a effort to save money. Bathrooms were shared with, according to my estimates, around a hundred other people.

    The modern mega-scraper may be a solution to real-estate costs, but it’s not really a solution to anything else. Just ask Minoru Yamasaki. Thank God that poor man didn’t live long enough to witness the death of all those poor people in Towers 1 & 2. As if Pruitt-Igoe weren’t enough infamy for one man to live down.

    I would say the last 20-30 years have been very enlightening as to the implications of having so many people “living” in one building. In comes Post-Modernism. It’s not just that these buildings are out of vogue, it’s that they are a flawed concept, and I think we’re beginning to see that. If we were all great, happy people who loved to share and take care of one another, maybe 50+ story buildings would be the beginnings of a utopia. If disasters weren’t an everyday reality or you could be sure electricity was always there to help move people out. And so on. The reasons for not having these buildings far outweigh their outward physical beauty. If you want physical beauty that’s 600+ ft. tall, then build a monument (e.g., the Arch). Just don’t put thousands of people inside.

    Take a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and realize that it’s real. It’s not unbuilt. It’s every American City. We’re living it, and quite frankly, it was a really bad idea.

    If you want to know how to build a city, how to build a house, how to build a work place, look over across the Atlantic where they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. I’m not sure why America thought it had to reinvent the wheel.

    It’s great in some ways that our culture has been so unrooted over these past 200 years, it’s made us free to come up with new (good) ideas along with the bad. But that’s also why I think it’s so strange and unfortunate that now that we’re seeing so many of these failed ideas as of late, instead of thinking of new ones, we’re holding on to the old failed ones.

    I challenge America to do better.

  • Jimmy Z

    We’re willing to trade our souls, especially at work, for the privilege of owning our own personal transportation and our own homes. Multi-family housing is viewed by most Americans as less desirable, and accomodating the SOV becomes exponentially more difficult as densities increase . . .

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